Diversion blocks boaters on popular stretch of Weber River

Wednesday , August 02, 2017 - 4:43 PM1 comment

LEIA LARSEN, Standard-Examiner Staff

Changes to a diversion on the Weber River have created a big barrier for boaters.

Devin Peterson kayaked “Fairground Falls” Saturday. It’s in a stretch of river near the Morgan County fairgrounds that Peterson has floated many times over the last year. The section draws boaters from along the Wasatch Front and beyond because of three rapid-like drops created long ago when farmers built small dams to divert water to their fields.

Once Peterson made it to the second drop, however, he sensed something had changed.

“I ran the same lines I did two weeks ago. Even though the (water) flows were the same, it felt different. I didn’t understand why,” he said. “Near the bottom of the second drop ... I hit something really hard.”

Concrete or rocks piled below the diversion head gate cut a deep gash down the length of Peterson’s new $1,300 boat, nearly ripping through. 

“A gash like that, you can’t really fix,” Peterson said. “In all the kayaking I’ve done, I’ve never had a worse gouge.”

Although disappointed with the damage, Peterson’s bigger concern is safety. 

“Let’s say you flipped at the top of the drop and you had to swim through it, it would do the same thing to your legs or your face,” he said.

The diversion alteration has created a big obstacle for Steve Myers, too. He owns Provo-based High Country Adventure and regularly runs rafting trips down Fairground Falls and the two other diversion drops in the section.

“Usually they’re kind of fun, they make it so we get a heck of a ride and some big rapids,” Myers said. “There’s nothing else like it in Utah.”

Myers said the drop was runnable last Wednesday, July 26.

But by the next day, “you could tell they went in, put in a bunch of rocks,” he said. “I’ve never seen it where you can’t go past it with a raft. Never. It’s always been passable with a raft or a kayak.”

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Now his guides have to portage around the diversion, which can be difficult for disabled customers and those with kids. Myers figures losing Fairground Falls will take a toll on his business.

“It’s all over our webpage and our social media. It’s a huge selling point,” he said. “We don’t want to ruffle feathers. That’s not the kind of business we want to operate … we just want to show people a good time.”

Myers opened his guiding business in 2011. Towns along the Weber River in Summit County, like Henefer, have been great to work with, he said. Things change once boaters cross the county line.

“Morgan’s a different story,” Myers said. “They’re really difficult.”

The bulk of Morgan County, including land along the Weber River, is privately owned. Clashes between boaters, tubers, anglers and property owners are as regular as spring runoff. Blocking Fairground Falls is just another way county residents tell boaters they aren’t welcome, Myers said.

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“If you go to towns like Moab or Jackson Hole, there are thriving businesses,” Myers said. “What better way to tout your town? Morgan has that opportunity, but you can tell they just don’t want it.”

Ned Mecham, vice chair of the Morgan County council, owns property along the river and has kayaked through the county “many times.” He said he wasn’t aware of the change to Fairground Falls, and that the county had no involvement. 

“This spring when the water was really high, I know most irrigation companies had to clean trees and crap (out of the river) because they’d all get caught in their diversion,” he said. “I don’t know of anyone who has intentionally done anything so you can’t float the river.”

According to Weber River Commissioner Cole Panter, the diversion is owned by South Morgan Water Ditch Company. Representatives for the company hung up on a reporter and did not return the Standard-Examiner’s subsequent calls.

Panter said it’s not unusual for diversion structures to create obstacles on the river. 

“I’d tell them to go to another stretch of river. That’s why people usually raft that one spot, from Henefer to Taggart — there are no diversions there, really,” he said. “I had a call this year where a kayaker was going through the mouth of (Weber) Canyon below the Pacific Corp station, got turned over, lost his boat and got stuck in the diversion gate.”

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If water-rights holders alter the stream for their diversions, Panter noted they’re required to get a permit from the Utah Division of Water Rights.

According to Marianne Burbidge, an administrator with the division, the state wasn’t notified about any planned changes to Fairground Falls. South Morgan Water Ditch Company, Morgan Secondary Water Association and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation are allowed to do general maintenance on the diversion without a permit.

“We really don’t see there’s anything they’re doing that we should be alerted to, except for concerns from kayakers,” she said.

Burbidge said she’s “very familiar” with the Fairground Falls diversion. Fluctuating water levels means there’s no guarantee the section will be passable by boaters.

But if a water-rights holder is intentionally altering the stream to make it impassable for boaters, “that’s what we need to know about,” Burbidge said. “We would have concerns.”

With so many kayakers and rafters complaining, the division’s stream alteration section plans to inspect Fairground Falls next week.

Even with a gouged kayak to repair, Peterson said he doesn’t think the diversion was changed to stop people from recreating on the river.

“I’m not necessarily claiming bad intentions,” he said. “Those dam drops were originally made by farmers — they’re artificial features. Because of that, you kind of expect things like cement to be in there ... but it should be something that’s not ruined or made more dangerous for boaters.”

Contact Reporter Leia Larsen at 801-625-4289 or llarsen@standard.net. Follow her on Facebook.com/leiainthefield or on Twitter @LeiaLarsen.

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